"I would," he said. "And the reason is this: that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them, which has been the guiding principle of this administration, is ridiculous."
It was a lofty sentiment — naive, according to many — and in the president's first term, it didn't lead very far. Not only were there setbacks with Iran, which cracked down on its opponents in the streets in 2009 and continued to pursue its disputed
But now, suddenly, diplomacy and engagement have made an unexpected comeback, and, even more amazingly, initial reports are positive. In Syria, where just a few weeks ago a military strike to punish President
It would be a mistake to read too much into such Foggy Bottom buzz phrases as "substantive and forward-looking." Negotiations could certainly break down over substantive issues. The legacy of distrust that must be overcome with Iran dates back well before the 444-day hostage crisis that followed the Iranian revolution, to the
Nevertheless, the administration's approach is the right one. Of course the United States must trust but verify; of course it must move cautiously so as not to be taken advantage of. Of course there are risks. But nations need tools to settle their disputes other than military might. This is not just because it's better to solve problems without the human tragedy, disruption and economic devastation of war, although that is certainly true. It's also because military action is not always practicable. Recent experience has shown that even the United States, despite its vast military superiority, doesn't always have the will or the stomach to fight dangerous, nonessential wars to solve distant problems.
One of the chief nonmilitary tools of statecraft is economic sanctions. For years the United States has sought to use them to pressure unsavory governments to moderate their behavior; after all, a weapon that can influence bad actors without risking American lives or those of foreign civilians certainly seems like a useful one. But sanctions have not always been successful. In the 1990s, for example, the United States and the
Yet now in Iran it appears that sanctions have at least helped bring the government to the table. If so, that's a good sign.